Getting 80,883 to the MCG last weekend was a major milestone for the Big Bash League. A lesser milestone not immediately evident to some (this reporter included) was the reaction to a state cricketing stalwart turning out for his new team for the first time.
After a 2015 dominated by unsavoury booing, it was not a surprise that ears pricked when boos again rang throughout a packed crowd, for the first Melbourne BBL derby of the season.
Record crowd turns out for Stars' BBL win
Fans turned out en masse at the MCG and Luke Wright stepped up to the plate with a century as Melbourne Stars defeated Melbourne Renegades.
John Hastings has been a long-term teammate of Cameron White. He was taken aback when the batsman who was a pillar of the Melbourne Stars' line-up for the past four seasons, and of Victoria's for many years prior, was cast as the villain by the MCG crowd, courtesy of his off-season move to Melbourne Renegades.
When cricket season ends Hastings' passion turns to AFL, even when he is playing cricket in England. It was that experience as a devotee of Hawthorn, and having to watch champion forward Lance Franklin move to rival team Sydney, that eventually persuaded him the booing of White was "probably a sign that people were taking it seriously".
"It's exactly like that [reaction when AFL players switch teams]. To have a rivalry you probably need your fans to be very passionate as well. You can't really blame them for that I guess," he said.
White himself took a while to be as passionate about his football as Hastings – he eventually chose Richmond, because their defender Steve Morris is a relative of his partner, Jacqui – but that experience ensured he was unperturbed by his unwelcome arrival last Saturday.
"I didn't really know what to expect. But in the back of my mind I thought, 'Parochial Victorian supporters'. You see it in the footy a bit," White said. "It was a little bit of a surprise, but I don't hold anything too personally."
Long-time Cricket Victoria operations boss Shaun Graf, who was involved in splitting the Bushrangers in mid-2011 in order to create the Stars and Renegades when the Big Bash changed from a state-based to city-based competition, looked at the booing as a positive sign of spectators' engagement with the teams.
"As far as I'm concerned, the new Big Bash has only been around for five years and they've known Cameron White as a Stars player for four of them and then all of a sudden he's over there at the Renegades. I think it's just natural. You only have to look at footy, it's what happens. It's just part and parcel of the game," he said.
"In the new-age Big Bash you've got a hell of a change in the people following: young, don't really know the history of the game. They love the event but they've never really followed Shield cricket, so therefore all they see if someone who has gone from green to red, so they're giving him a bit of curry."
The issue of White's shift from the Stars to the Renegades remains prickly on all sides. Even on Friday, White, the foundation captain of the Stars, reiterated that it was not a simple matter of him seeking a change in scenery.
"It's funny how it works out sometimes, sport. What's happened has happened," he said a day before he will captain his new team against his old team at Etihad Stadium, because full-time captain Aaron Finch is with Australia's one-day squad in Perth.
"I didn't exactly 'leave'. It was just the way it did work out. I needed another club to go and play for. Renegades were where I ended up."
The Bushrangers were a wildly successful Twenty20 team, to the extent that they were at one stage reputed to be the best in the world at the fledgling format.
When Cricket Australia changed the structure of the competition, to expand it, it considered bids from major regional cities such as Geelong and Newcastle to host their state's second team. They and the state associations eventually settled on two teams in Melbourne and Sydney, partly because of the commercial benefits of being in bigger markets and partly because they loved the idea of intra-city rivalries.
At Victoria, the dressing rooms were virtually split in two. Captain White, David Hussey and Hastings were among those who chose the Stars. Brad Hodge, Andrew McDonald and then-inexperienced batsmen Finch and Glenn Maxwell chose the Renegades.
Graf said Victoria's main priority was that both teams be competitive. He suspected Cricket NSW settled on a model they had rejected, of loading one team (Sydney Sixers) with most of the best players, at the expense of the other (Sydney Thunder), in the hope of winning the lucrative Champions League tournament. The Sixers duly delivered that title, in the now-defunct tournament, in 2012.
Cricket NSW chief executive Andrew Jones agreed the Sixers had signed the core of the NSW squad, and that the Thunder had been left with "more of a mixed bag". That imbalance was exacerbated by the Thunder's woeful form to end season one and then during all of season two, after which they not only battled to retain the players they wanted but to persuade ideal recruits to join them.
Jones characterised the rivalry between the Sixers and Thunder as "reasonably friendly" for most of the past 4 seasons, partly because the Thunder had yet to "earn the right to be bitter rivals".
Cricket NSW's commitment to remedy the Thunder's clear deficiencies in facilities, administration and coaching started to translate into on-field improvement last season. That trend accelerated at the start of this season, as the Thunder beat the Sixers for the first time on the way to winning their first three matches of the season, in front of crowds much healthier than recent years.
"We want two strong clubs, and I think this year we can say we have two strong clubs," said Jones, downplaying the injury-plagued Sixers' struggles as "a blip, not a slip".
The movement between the Sydney teams has far exceeded what has been seen in Melbourne. The most significant defection in Melbourne came when Hodge and Maxwell quit the Renegades to join the Stars after season one.
The Renegades then got revenge by poaching national-team pacemen James Pattinson and Peter Siddle, with the latter only having been given a place on the Stars' supplementary list. A year later they used a four-year deal to snare Stars wicketkeeper and state captain Matthew Wade. In the past winter this expanded to include White, after a prolonged contract stalemate with the Stars.
The first season of the BBL was said to have caused a significant distraction within the Victoria dressing room, leading to a period in which they won only one of their five Sheffield Shield matches in the first half of the season.
Graf disagreed the Bushrangers players had been distracted by the BBL, way back in 2011-12, through the scenario where they were "training as a team one day and the next they were divided into a totally different teams with different colours". Nevertheless, as soon as that inaugural BBL season finished he organised a mini camp in Portsea to reunite the Stars and Renegades, staff as well as players, as a reminder to "to get everyone 'Thinking [Bushrangers] blue' again".
Hastings reckoned the only time there had been real angst in Melbourne derbies was the infamous confrontation between two former players Shane Warne and Marlon Samuels. He said he had no desire to sledge the likes of White and Wade, who he calls teammates for most of the year.
"I found it really hard trying to get angry and competitive, because I have played with them for so long. 'Whitey' has captained me for the past 10 years so it's quite hard to put that aside," he said.
The absence of genuine aggression should not be mistaken for their not being a "genuine rivalry" between the Melbourne teams, Hastings insisted.
Rather than worrying about dealing with Bushrangers having genuine gripes with teammates who temporarily were opponents in the BBL, Graf said his biggest focus was players coping with the drastic change in attention from matches such as Saturday's sell-out derby at Etihad Stadium to what will greet them in February when the first-class season resumes.
"Coming out of Big Bash with all its hype, especially now with the big crowds and everything, you've got to come back out here [on the MCG] into a Shield game, after a week to adjust, and see maybe 600 or 800 people at a day's play, which is a little bit different to 80,000," he said.
Once they are all back together, Graf will be ensuring the week between the BBL and Shield is long enough for players to digest what happened during this wildly successful tournament and shift their focus on to preserving Victoria's top spot in the Shield and winning a second consecutive title.
Come Saturday night, however, "thinking blue" will not be a priority for White, Hastings and all of those who call themselves teammates for most of the year. They will be thinking green and red, like the majority of the crowd who are much more passionate about BBL than they ever were, or will be about the Shield – and boo accordingly.